Friday, March 02, 2018

Dusty Answer, by Rosamond Lehmann

This is a novel of yearning. Judith Earle is an only child, a teenager living a lonely life in a nice house in the Thames Valley. She recalls with a thrill the times in her childhood when the next-door house was home to five cousins, who would sometimes involve her in their games. Looking back to those days with a pang, she longs for them to have noticed her, to have thought well of her, to come back to her again.

Then there is news: cousins Charlie and Mariella have married, young, and Charlie has gone off to the trenches. There, that beautiful boy is killed, leaving his young wife with a baby she can't quite deal with. The cousins return to the next-door house, and Judith still yearns for their attention. But they're older, sadder, broken - and beset by thoughts of sex. They speak of mistresses rathet than wives. Judith is observed swimming naked in the river, and each of the cousins seems to fall for her in turn over the next few years.

Judith has strong feelings, and is quick to fantasise events to come - at the mention of a cousin's name, she will be consumed by thoughts of how she'll teach or nurse or marry them. There's a sense this longing comes from being so lonely at home - her parents spend most of the book abroad. But there's also a great well of emotion inside her that yearns to be fully expressed.

Then Judith starts at Cambridge, and immediately falls for a fellow student, Jennifer. Their relationship is passionate and loving, and scandalised readers when the book was first published in 1927. But it's surprising, now, how little this three-year affair actually involves. Later, when Judith is carried away by one of the (male) cousins to a secluded spot on an island, we're left with little doubt as to the physical act that occurs - without it ever being spelled out. But between Jennifer and Judith, there's lots of mutual admiration, entertaining friends and gettiing a little tipsy... And that's all. Their kisses might be the kisses of affectionate, platonic friends.

Judith also makes time for a strange, sad girl called Mabel, who everyone else is rude about. On her first day at college, Judith worries that by just making polite conversation with Mabel, the girl will be a burden to her ever after. And though there's an element that Judith is too embarrassed, too cowardly, to break off from Mabel entirely, we also see her kindness and care when Mabel gets into a fix over her exams. Seeing Judith's kindness and compassion make it all the more galling when others are cruel or uncaring to her.

In the last year at university, Jennifer abruptly dumps Judith for another woman, and Lehmann keenly makes us feel the loss. Judith's beloved (if absent) father also dies, and Judith is left in fug of confused, desperate emotions. It's here she encounters the cousins again, swimming naked with Mariella and facing advances of different kinds from the men. One of the cousins treats her particularly badly - using her, then casting her off. We keenly feel the affect this has on Judith, and the risk to her reputation and future should her actions ever be spoken of. And yet she can't stop yearning for those people who have treated her so badly.

For all her misery, Judith is a smart and witty young woman, an accomplished ice-skater, swimmer and student. It is fun to be in her company. But there's a constant feeling, whatever her best efforts, that she's trapped by her class and gender and time. Required to join her widowed mother in Paris after completing her studies, it seems Judith's academic accompishments can only be a hindrance.
"'If you were a little more stupid,' said Mamma, 'you might make a success of a London season even at this late date. You've got the looks. You are stupid - stupid enough, I should think, to ruin all your own chances - but you're not stupid all through. You're like your father: he was a brilliant imbecile. I never intended to put you into the marriage-market - but I'll do so if you like. If you haven't decided to marry one of those young Fyfes... They're quite a good family, I suppose.'"
Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer (1927), p. 259.
There is more loss to come, and the novel ends with Judith never more alone, and unsure of her future - but also at some kind of epiphany about these people who have so consumed her thoughts and desires for so long. She is still yearning, but not for them. There's just a chance she is free. 

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